Exercise as a cure for depression

The Observer


Just start jogging and forget the Prozac. French depression expert Dr David Servan-Schreiber is advocating treating depression without prescribing mind-altering drugs

His theory has transformed the way a nation thinks about depression and stress. Thousands of French men and women already swear by his central message and regularly flock to hear him speak. Dr David Servan-Schreiber, a dashing professor of clinical psychiatry and founding member of Medecins Sans Frontieres in the United States, believes exercise can be as curative as antidepressants. Dubbed by the French press as ‘the shrink who draws the crowds’, Servan-Schreiber believes many forms of anxiety can be tackled without recourse to drugs or therapy. His research has suggested that instead of taking antidepressants, a subtle combination of meditation, breathing exercises and acupuncture can be much more effective in minor cases of depression and stress, just the kind of mental health problems that dog modern working men and women.

“It is not that I am against antidepressants, but it is just that there are some natural methods of treatments which have been demonstrated to work for milder forms of depressions. It doesn’t make sense to ignore them any longer,” he said. Servan-Schreiber’s methods have been hailed as a turning point in psychiatry on the continent, with Le Monde styling him as ‘the guru of a new medicine’, while L’Express exclaimed, “Get better without medicine”. And the banner headlines and adoring interviews continue, as the doctor’s book heads the bestseller lists.

At a time when one in four adults in the UK, to take just one country, can expect to suffer mental health difficulties - and where the number of prescriptions for antidepressants has more than doubled in 10 years - Servan-Schreiber’s theories do fall on receptive ears. Publishers Rodale and Pan Macmillan certainly expect his work to make a big impact on their profits. So far the doctor’s ideas have reached Belgium, Switzerland and Canada, where they have been received almost rapturously. His book, ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’ (Rodale/Pan Macmillan), has sold half a million copies in Canada and has been the best-selling factual title for a year.

Stranger still, people who meet him often seem to undergo a conversion-like experience.

Servan-Schreiber, who is descended from a well-known dynasty of French writers, explains how he arrived at his startling conclusions after a career spent in conventional medicine, both working in hospitals and in academic research units. After looking at cases in which people, often in the middle of their careers, fell into depressions and even physical illness, the doctor started to explore a number of methods of steering people back into positive trains of thought without prescribing mind-altering drugs.

“Depression is always associated with dark, pessimistic thoughts, thoughts that undercut the self and others and that turn relentlessly over in our heads,” Servan-Schreiber has written. Even something as basic as running can put a stop to this, he holds. “One of the characteristics of sustained physical effort is precisely that it puts a halt temporarily to this torrent of depressive thoughts.” Simple exercise is often the key, but a more complex system of learning how to ‘listen to the heart’ and to harness the body’s own healing patterns with relaxation techniques is also advocated, more contentiously, by Servan-Schreiber. While he is not opposed to drugs as a way of treating some conditions, he argues that basic human functions, like the movement of the eye during sleep, can teach mental health medicine a large amount.